Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Keeping Everyone Happy

Following the announcement of the Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer contracts on Friday afternoon, Aaron Gleeman posted an analysis on his blog that was -- judging by the reaction in his comments section -- perceived as a rather negative take on the deals. Gleeman's argument is that the $104 million that the team has collectively committed to the two players is quite risky when you take into account that neither player has proven that he can consistently provide more than slightly above-average production for his position. Gleeman did note that keeping relatively young and talented players in Minnesota is "obviously a positive thing," and I doubt he intended for his analysis come off as negative as many people took it, but I think it's fair to say that he is less than thrilled with the contracts.

As usual, Gleeman's analysis is accurate, and I agree with the core of his argument. On multiple occasions here, I have labeled Cuddyer as a fairly mediocre right fielder (which has often raised some debate), and Morneau's hitting line last year was pretty much in line with his career line, which is nothing special for a first baseman. (On an aside, I am fairly confident that Morneau will be a significantly above-average hitter over the life of his contract -- in his case I think it is fair to put more stock into the past two seasons while overlooking his atrocious 2005 campaign to some degree.)

With all that being said, I think that the scope of Gleeman's analysis was a bit narrow. Looking strictly at the statistics and the Twins' payroll situation, it's fairly easy to view these signings as a potentially dangerous risk that may have not been overly savvy. Yet, aside from simply locking up two young players who can hit, these signings accomplish a pair of other important tasks: they please fans and they please players. Those might seem like ambiguous and perhaps unimportant goals, and they're not easily analyzed because they are difficult to qualify, but I think they are important, particularly considering the Twins' current situation.

Just as the construction on a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis starts to hit its stride, the Twins are saying goodbye to some of their most popular players. This offseason, the Twins have parted ways with Torii Hunter, and now appear to be on the verge of dealing Johan Santana. Both of these decisions came about due to money, and with the new stadium being put in place and the revenue in Major League Baseball rising, fans can easily get a bad message. Bill Smith and the Twins felt that they needed to make a statement and show that this team is willing to spend money and compete, and so they did so by signing a few core players to some fairly large contracts. Is there risk associated with these contracts? Naturally, but during his tenure as general manager Smith has not shown a major aversion to risk, which is something I respect.

Letting a fan favorite who was the team's best hitter last year walk in free agency is a significant risk, but the Twins seemingly made little effort to re-sign Hunter. Trading the team's best young healthy pitcher for a toolsy but unproven 22-year-old outfielder is a significant risk, but Smith dealt Matt Garza for Delmon Young. And signing a first-baseman who is coming off a relatively mediocre campaign to the largest contract in team history is a significant risk, but the Twins now owe Morneau $80 million over the next six years.

These moves have carried some risk, to be sure, but I would argue that they are necessary risks and that the upside in each of these moves has far outweighed the downside. Losing Hunter might hurt this year and perhaps next year, but I think most would agree that he will not be worth $18 million in 2011 or 2012. Young is almost certain to develop into at least a solidly above-average hitter, even if he never makes good on the Manny Ramirez comparisons. And while perhaps Morneau's true self is not the MVP-caliber hitter he was in 2006, he is a great bet to provide above-average production and very good power to the middle of this lineup over the next six years. That's worth a lot in a lineup that lacks punch and an organization that has very little on the horizon in terms of promising power hitters. In his article, Gleeman rightfully notes that it shouldn't be overly difficult to identify inexpensive players that can provide solid production at power-hitting positions through various means, but it cannot be taken for granted that the Twins simply have not been able to do this. Having a guy like Morneau locked up is important for that reason.

Cuddyer's contract is reasonable, in terms of years and cost, and I think that's a pretty difficult contract to criticize. Morneau's contract is a lot larger, and that seems to be where critics are leveling most of their concern. Over the last four years of the deal, Morneau will be making a significant amount of money -- $14M/yr between the 2010 and 2013 seasons. Yet, these most expensive seasons all come with the Twins' new ballpark in place, and as long as the league's revenues continue to rise and the free agent marketplace continues to escalate, there's more than a good chance that those salaries will look like a bargain by that time.

With players complaining about a lack of commitment to winning, and fans scratching their heads over an inexplicable lack of spending, the Twins needed to make a statement, and they did so with these contracts. There's risk, but it is an acceptable amount and it is not likely to cripple the team's payroll anytime soon. Whether or not they were incredibly smart, these signings illustrate a commitment to winning to players and fans that should make everybody happy.

13 comments:

Jesse said...

Not to go all "Duckies & Bunnies" on you here, but I need to take a second to give you due recognition. I love the fact that I can come here and get informed, intelligent opinion without having to resort to statistics to back up what you have to say.

There's clearly an advantage to the numbers game, which is something I do, but in the Twins blogging community there's an abundant reliance on it. I think what I'm saying is that it's possible to write quality opinion work that isn't based around stats, and this site is exhibit A.

Plus it helps that I happen to agree with what you say 95% of the time. Nice work, as usual.

neckrolls said...

I agree with you. Gleeman works the numbers very well, but doesn't seem to appreciate the value of personalities and the fans' relationship to the players. I wonder if attendance at Twins Fest would have been so good if they hadn't announced those contracts right before it started. If the deals help people believe in the team, and those people decide to buy tickets after all, then they are a good investment.

Anonymous said...

Lots of questions.
Wasn't Santana told that we would only go 5 years with him because that was as long as the Twins were willing to go on a contract? And here's a 6 year deal on JM?
Isn't Santana more of a proven commodity? Wouldn't it show more to the fans to sign him than somebody who is already in the fold for next year?
Won't Sanatana be just as much of a bargain in the later years of his contract? In fact isn't he a bargain now if you look at what Silva got?

Anonymous said...

What has always left me shaking my head at Gleeman's analyses (and those of some of the other "stat oriented" blogger types) is this theory (as you pointed out) that "replacement level" players or "average MLB players" at a given position are fungible goods and always available in the free agent or trade markets. The Twins have not had a power hitter of significant quality since the Puckett/Hrbek era (and one can argue neither of those were truly power hitters either). If it is so easy to get "average" production out of a 1B or corner OF, why haven't the Twins been able to find anyone to fill those roles? An "average" 1B, if you can find one, makes big money, once past the serfdom/arb years. The stat head analysis doesn't seem to take into account, at least not fully, that it is at least as important to have an "average" 1B in terms of offense (Morneau) than it is to have a "superb" C in terms of offense (Mauer) in overall production.

Put it this way, without an "average" first baseman, your offense suffers more with a mediocrity than it would with an inferior hitter (adjusted for position) as a catcher. This is why generally first basemen get paid more than catchers, average, below average, or superior.

No matter what Gleeman maintains re: the availability of "average" talent, the Twins have had few first basemen (or outfielders for that matter) who provided 'above average" production at their positions. Let us remember this is 1b and RF we are talking about, prime offensive positions. The contracts were not onerous and barring injury are at worst a mild overpayment for a team that in two years should be league average in terms of its overall payroll. Sometimes too much stats and not enough feel just doesn't make it for me. Only time will tell.

Nick N. said...

Jesse, thanks a lot. I'm certainly right there with you... I'm a fan of stats and I love using them to support an argument or flesh out a theory, but there is simply more to the game of baseball -- especially the business side -- than numbers.

If the deals help people believe in the team, and those people decide to buy tickets after all, then they are a good investment.

Right. There's a lot of logic there. Creating excitement leads to selling tickets. Selling tickets leads to increasing payroll. Increasing payroll leads to... well you get the idea.

Wasn't Santana told that we would only go 5 years with him because that was as long as the Twins were willing to go on a contract? And here's a 6 year deal on JM?
Isn't Santana more of a proven commodity? Wouldn't it show more to the fans to sign him than somebody who is already in the fold for next year?
Won't Sanatana be just as much of a bargain in the later years of his contract? In fact isn't he a bargain now if you look at what Silva got?


Yes, Santana is more of a proven commodity. Yes, Santana is a better player. Would it be smarter to sign Santana to a six year extension worth upwards of $120M? I'm not sure. There are a few things at work here. Signing pitchers to expensive long-term deals is more risky than signing position players because there's a larger risk of devastating injury. Santana is older and would be in his mid-30s by the time his contract expires, whereas Morneau will be only 32 and probably still in his prime. And, of course, there are indications that Santana doesn't have any true desire to re-sign here in the first place.

Tricia said...

Thanks for this post. Keeping everyone happy is exactly right. I like Justin & Cuddy a lot, and I'm very pleased they'll be around long term. They play well enough most of the time to keep me happy. Cuddy stuck around long enough after one of his radio interviews @ Twins Fest to sign my son's baseball, and that makes me like him even more.

WV said...

Nice post; it's hard not to underestimate the importance of player continuity in the maintanence of a fan base. I'm not saying the Twins should string along terrible players like Nick Punto for a decade, but if they have young, slightly above average players who have shown potential to improve, I can't object too much with the deals.

A nice comparison is Oakland. It must be difficult to follow that team when the superstars are constantly being traded away for prospects. I, as a fan, would take a few less wins per year at the expense of not having to become acquainted with a new host of players every spring training.

TT said...

"These moves have carried some risk, to be sure, but I would argue that they are necessary risks and that the upside in each of these moves has far outweighed the downside."

As you note, all moves, or non-moves, carry risk. Obviously, no statistical analysis will ever change that. The problem is that most of the "sophisticated" statistical analysis by baseball writers is so lacking that it can't really even do much to help assess that risk.

Championship teams are usually built by having good players who have better than average years. Accurate statistical evaluations of those kinds of risks give brain cramps that the average baseball fan, or blog reader, simply isn't interested in.

Morneau has shown that he is capable of the kind of season that will help turn a team into a champion. Signing Morneau to a long-term contract may turn out poorly, but no statistical analysis will tell you that.

Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer provide a new core of offensive players who can have the kinds of years that win championships. I think Delmon Young will soon be added to that core. The convergence of good years from those four, given adequate pitching, will make the Twins a division winner.

There weren't many fans demanding the Twins offer David Ortiz arbitration. The statistics certainly didn't point in that direction. But the Twins might have won a World Series if they had taken that risk.

Gleeman has the "attitude" down well, numbers and/or baseball not so much. Bobby Kielty anyone?

beth said...

I really appreciate you bringing up the benefits of the contracts that don't involve the stats--the relationship with the players, the reputation of the team, etc. I love numbers (stats), but I know all too well that numbers aren't the whole story.

Nibbish said...

According to USA today (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2008-01-29-twins-mets-santana_N.htm), Santana's been traded for 4 Mets prospects, pending no-trade waive and physical.

Nick N. said...

According to USA today (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2008-01-29-twins-mets-santana_N.htm), Santana's been traded for 4 Mets prospects, pending no-trade waive and physical.

Yep. Santana for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra.

Brutal.

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